Vladimir Tatlin

Vladimir Tatlin

Vladimir Tatlin was a Soviet painter, designer and architect, one of the brightest representatives of Russian avant-garde, particularly of Constructivist movement.

Early years

Vladimir Tatlin was born on December 28, 1885, according to one sources – in Kharkiv (now Ukraine), according to the others – in Moscow, in a family of a hereditary nobleman and railroad engineer. The boy’s died, when he was only 4 years old. In 1896 Tatlins moved to Kharkiv, where his father became the director of the wool-washing factory – position, which allowed to provide financial security to his three kids.

Vladimir was interested in drawing since he was seven, so after their settling in Kharkiv, he enrolled the local Realschule, where gained first lessons in drawing from Dmitry Besperchy. After finishing three classes of the Realschule, Tatlin ran away from home, got to Odessa and enlisted as a cabin boy in the merchant-passenger steamship. After a short voyage on it, he left for Moscow, where made for living with odd jobs. Yet, the young man didn’t break up with his family and regularly visited his relatives. During the youth age, three main Tatlin’s passions were shaped up – art, sea and theater.

In September 1902 Vladimir Tatlin began attending the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture but was excluded in April 1903 for “poor progress and improper behavior”. His father, to whom the youngster had returned, wrote a petition about son’s reinstatement at school, but it was declined.

After the death of the father in 1904, Tatlin became a student of Odessa naval school, yet, the desire of art was stronger, so he entered the Art school in Penza in a year. The master graduated from it in 1910. His main teacher was the director of the school Aleksey Afanasyev, who inculcated Vladimir appreciation and understanding of Ancient Russian icon painting.

Shift to avant-garde

His summer vacations the artist spent in Moscow, where he met Mikhail Larionov – the person, who greatly affected the Tatlin’s inclination to vanguard movements. In 1909 Vladimir participated in his first exhibition – the Salon of “The Golden Fleece” almanac. Later he joined shows of “World of art”, “Union of the Youth”, “Jack of Diamonds” and “Donkey’s Tail” groups.

Tatlin’s after 1910s paintings were marked by distancing from impressionistic influence and approaching to primitivism: their main feature was predominance of flatness, underlined by expressive drawing, which organized composition with curvy lines. “Sailor” (or “Self-portrait”, 1911) is a bright example of the artist’s manner of that period.
The attempt to represent the general, universal rhythm could be seen in Vladimir’s works for theater, among which his designs to “Tsar Maximillian” play (1911) should be mentioned. In 1913 Tatlin made for himself (without comission) sketches to the “A Life for the Tsar” opera by Mikhail Glinka and “Flying Dutchman” by Richard Wagner two years later (both project remained unrealized).

In 194 Vladimir Tatlin visited Paris, where, apart from all places to see, attended studio of Pablo Picasso. Inspired by the impetuous artistic life of the city, after returning to Moscow the painter created so-called “patenting-reliefs” or “counter-reliefs”, where objects were transferred from the flat surface into three-dimensional world. Such materials as wood, metal and glass were used from them.

Those constructions were first demonstrated to the public in 1914, in Tatlin’s studio, and later at the shows “Tramway B”, “1915”, “The Shop”. In fact, the artist made first steps towards Constructivism.

First post-revolution years

After the October Revolution, Vladimir Tatlin actively participated in the process of cultural transformation: he headed the Moscow department of Collegium on Issues of Fine Arts of the Ministry of Education (1919 – 1919), worked at the InHUK (acronym from Russian “Institute of the Artistic Culture”), being in charge of the department of the material culture (1923 – 1924), was a professor at the Kyiv Art Institute (1925 – 1927) and VKHUTEMAS – VKHUTEIN (1927 – 1930).

In 1919 – 1920 Tatlin created one of his major pieces – a model of Monument to the Third International, which was exhibited at the Congress of Soviets in December, 1920. Made of metal, glass and wood, the model didn’t remain, and later some attempts of its reconstruction, using few survived photos and draughts, were undertook. “The Tatlin’s Tower” was a complex of rotating with different speed simplest spatial elements, placed on one slanting axle. They were covered with spiral tracery metal grate. The construction’s dynamic composition symbolized the universal renewal, aiming at Future. It was meant to be one of the highest buildings in the world, about 400 meters high.

Early 1920s. Innovations in design

Vladimir Tatlin was one of the key personalities in history of Soviet design. He stressed that each thing should be comfortable, functional and attractive for its owner. Artist should render such objects that would shape up new living space in its integrity. There, he believed, the complex cooperation with engineers and technicians was essential. The master designed projects of new stoves, bed’s construction, models of clothing and crockery.

The latter was defined by its “organic” form. The artist wanted to produce cups without handles, so it would have as much contact with human’s hand as it was possible. His clothing was joining everyday costume with industrial uniform.

A few surviving photographs allowed to reconstruct Tatlin’s design of console chair (1927). It was based in the model of Michael Thonet’s construction of chair, yet they have some radical differences. If in Thonet’s Austrian chair its vertical bearings were crucial, in Vladimir’s variant the chair had three levels – bearing chair legs, console for setting and chair back, where visually harmonious and constructive at the same time, unlike most of other prototypes.

The artist tried himself in theatrical art as well: in 1923 Velemir Khlebinkov’s “meta-novel” “Zangezi” was staged, where Tatlin was the director, decorator and main actor at once. He believed that play to be the most important one in all his theatrical experience, as it expressed his admiration of his friend’s Velemir poetry. It’s peculiar, how such gestures, like participation in a “nonsense” theater, combined in one personality with rationality and glorification of Constructivism.


Around 1927 Vladimir Tatlin began developing a flying apparatus, called “Letatllin”. It should be operated by the muscle power of a human. The author tried to follow the structure of a bird’s wing, so his ornithopter would mimic principles of the bird’s flight. The absences of light and at the same time firm materials led to the damage of “Letatlin” during its transportation and its testing was cancelled. Later the workshop in the tower the Novodevichy Convent, where the ornithopter had been assembled, was liquidated and the apparatus was never tried out.


1930s were marked by emergence of negative appraisal of avant-garde. Tatlin, like many other of his colleagues, was harshly criticized, considered to be a mere artesian, who was occupied with technique and engineering (especially after failed “Letatlin” project). The very few people truly understood Vladimir was trying to realize the romantic ages-old human’s dream of free flight, which had enchanted him in his childhood.

Since 1935 the master actively and fruitfully worked for the theater. That was a way of earning for living and not becoming detached from then-contemporary artistic process. Among his most successful designs to the plays were “Comic of the XVII century” (1935), “We won’t give up” (1935).

After a long break, he returned to easel painting. Giving up vanguard experiments, Tatlin created a series of small-scale, intimate portraits, landscapes , still lifes, sketched and painted nudes. His late works were noticeable for poeticism of images, lyrical mood and closeness to the masters of Pointillism (“The bouquet with red stripe”, 1935). Specialists declare the intensification of realistic influence in Vladimir’s canvases towards the end of 1930s (“The Garden Flowers”, 1938). Tatlin never painted portraits on order – all his models were close friends or relatives. The artist’s portrait sketches were full of emotional, anxious attitude towards them.

Last decade

In 1940s, time of political persecution, Tatlin appeared among “anti-national” cultural activist. So, his last years he spent in the depth of poverty, not exhibiting his pieces anywhere, earning for living consulting students of architectural institute or making visual aids for the Moscow University.

Vladimir Tatlin died on May 31, 1953 in Moscow. Although he left no school and no apprentices, it’s hard to overestimate his influence on the art of the 20th cent.